Modern Tibetans thrive in the rarefied air at altitudes above 4 km partly because they benefit from a genetic mutation of the gene EPAS1, which regulates haemoglobin production. Surprisingly, the segment of Tibetan’s DNA that contains the mutation matches that present in the genome of an undated Denisovan girl’s finger bone found in the eponymous Siberian cave. The geneticists who made this discovery were able to estimate that Tibetans inherited the entire segment sometime in the last 40 thousand years through interbreeding with Denisovans, who probably were able to live at high altitude too. Wherever and whenever this took place the inheritance was retained because it clearly helped those who carried it to thrive in Tibet. The same segment is present in a few percent of living Han Chinese people, which suggests their ancestors and those of the Tibetans were members of the same group some 40 ka ago, most of the Han having lost the mutation subsequently.
That inheritance would have remained somewhat mysterious while the existing evidence for the colonisation of the Tibetan Plateau suggested sometime in the Holocene, possibly by migrating early farmers. A single archaeological site at 4600 m on the Plateau has changed all that (Zhang, X.L. and 15 others 2018. The earliest human occupation of the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau 40 thousand to 30 thousand years ago. Science, v. 362, p. 1049-1051; DOI: 10.1126/science.aat8824). The dig at Nwya Devu, which lies 250 km NW of Lhasa, has yielded a sequence of sediments (dated by optically stimulated luminescence at between 45 to 18 thousand years) that contains abundant stone tools made from locally occurring slate. The oldest coincides roughly with the age of the earliest anatomically modern human migrants into northern China, so the earliest Tibetans may well have been a branch of that same group of people, as suggested by the DNA of modern Tibetan and Han people. However, skeletal remains of both humans and their prey animals are yet to emerge from Nwya Devu, which leaves open the question of who they were. Anatomically modern humans or archaic humans, such as Denisovans?
The tools do not help to identify their likely makers. Slate is easy to work and typically yields flat blades with sharp, albeit not especially durable, edges; they are disposable perhaps explaining why so many were found at Nwya Devu. None show signs of pressure flaking that typify tools made from harder, more isotropic rock, such as flint. Yet they include a variety of use-types: scrapers; awls; burins and choppers as well as blades. The lack of associated remains of prey or hearths is suggested by the authors to signify that the site was a workshop; perhaps that will change with further excavation in the area. The age range suggests regular, if not permanent, occupancy for more than 20 ka
About 1.3 billion years ago two small black holes, each weighing in at about 30 solar masses, ran into one another and fused. At that time Earthly life forms had neither mouths nor anuses, nor even a nervous system, and they were not much bigger than a sand grain. The distant collision involved rapid acceleration of considerable masses. A century ago Albert Einstein predicted that the movement of any matter in the universe should perturb space-time in a wave-like form that travels at the same speed as light. Well, he was right for, at 9:50:45 universal time on 14 September 2015, four exquisitely engineered mirrors deployed in the two set-ups of a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington states in the US minutely shuddered, first in the Deep South and 0.007 seconds later in the Pacific Northwest. The signal lasted 0.25 seconds and, when rendered as sound, comprised a sort of chirrup starting at 35 Hz and rising to 250 Hz before an abrupt end. Five months later, and silent internationally shared theoretical verification, the story was released to the back slapping, stamping and pawing the air that we have come to expect from clever, ambitious and persuasive people who have spent a great deal of our money and have something to show for it. So now we know that the universe is probably throbbing – albeit very, very, very quietly – with gravitational waves generated by every single motion that has taken place in the whole of ‘recorded’ history since the Big Bang. Indeed, it is claimed, LIGO-like machines may one day detect the big wave itself if, that is, it hasn’t already passed through the solar system. Recall, 13.7 billion years ago the Big Bang didn’t take much longer than this comparatively mundane collision at 1.3 Ga . Physicists are going to have a lot to ponder on now they have a lever to get yet greater funds. To put all this in perspective, the detected chirrup had been traveling for 1.3 Ga, and so too must the actual place in the universe where it took place: I guess we will never know where it is now or what damage or otherwise may have been visited upon planetary systems in its vicinity, if indeed it had even the slightest recognisable geological or ecological consequence.
So, onto the mundane world of glaciology and climate change.
Tibet is the third greatest repository of glacial ice on the surface of the Earth’s continents. It is the focus of one of the planet’s greatest climatic system, the South Asian. While much of the Plateau hasn’t borne glaciers continuously throughout even the last glacial cycle, it is becoming clear that its western margin has remained cold enough to retain ice throughout an even longer period. In the Kunlun mountains is a 200 km2 ice cap known as the Guliya. At the start of detailed glacial stratigraphic ventures in 1990s, focused mainly on Greenland and Antarctica, analysis of a core from the Guliya ice cap yielded dates extending back to 130 ka, before the start if the last interglacial. This section lies above ice that at the time could not be dated reliably other than to show that it may be older than about 750 ka. This stemmed from its lack of the radioactive 36Cl formed, similarly to 14C, by cosmic-ray interactions with stable 35Cl in atmospheric salt aerosols: such cosmogenic chlorine can be used for radiometric dating of ice younger than 750 ka.
A News Feature in the 29 January issue of Science (Qiu, J. 2016. Tibet’s primeval ice. Science, v. 351, p. 436-439) focused on the preliminary results of an expedition, led by Yao Tandong of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Beijing and Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University, Columbus, to drill a further five ice cores at Guliya in September 2015, one of which penetrated ove 300 m of glacial ice. It is now possible to date ice layers back to a million years using argon isotopes. Combined with stable isotope and other measurements through the cores, the dating should provide a huge amount of new information on the evolution of the monsoon, which is currently understood only vaguely. Such information would sharpen models of how the monsoon system works and even hint at how it might change during a period of anthropogenic warming. An estimated 1.4 billion people – a fifth of humanity – who live in the Indian subcontinent, China and SE Asia depend for their food-production on the monsoon.
With less humanitarian urgency but equally fascinating is the discovery that, as well as sea-ice, the central Arctic Ocean once hosted vast ice shelves during the last-but-one glacial episode (Jakobsson, M. and 24 others 2016. Evidence for an ice shelf covering the central Arctic Ocean during the penultimate glaciations. Nature Communications, v. 7, doi:10.1038/ncomms10365. Clues emerged from multibeam sonar bathymetry that created detailed images of topography on the floor of the Arctic Ocean. These revealed sets of parallel ridges on the shallowest parts of the polar basin, thought to have formed when moving ice shelves grounded. The depths of the grooved areas indicate ice thicknesses up to and exceeding 1 km. The grooves look very similar to the large-scale lineaments that formed on the surface of the Canadian Shield when the Laurentide ice sheet ground its way from zones of glacial accumulation. Grounding of an ice shelf would have resulted in its thickening in the upflow direction as a result of plastic deformation of the ice, tending to lock the flow and direct ice escape over the deeper parts of the Arctic basin.
Back-tracking the grooves defines the ice shelf’s source regions in the northern Canadian islands, north Scandinavia and the lowlands of eastern Siberia as well as regional flow patterns and the extent of floating continental ice. The last is a major surprise: at over 4 million km2 it was four times larger than all modern Antarctic ice shelves. The ice moved to ‘escape’ to the North Atlantic Ocean through the Fram Strait between East Greenland and Svalbard (Spitzbergen). Dating sediment stratigraphy in the grooved areas using magnetic and fossil data shows that the ice shelves existed between 160 and 140 ka during the penultimate glacial maximum. For such a mass of glacial ice to be expelled into the Arctic Ocean implies that a great deal more snow fell on its fringes then than during the last glacial maximum. Another possibility is that the huge mass of floating ice regulated the salinity and density of the upper Atlantic in a different way from the periodic iceberg ‘armadas’ that characterized the last glacial epoch and help account for a whole number of sudden warming and cooling events.
Domack, E. 2016. A great Arctic ice shelf. Nature, v. 530, p. 163-164.
The vast Tibetan Plateau at an average elevation of 4500 m is a major influence on the climate of Asia, being central to the annual monsoons, as well as one the world’s largest continental tectonic features. When it formed is crucial in palaeoclimatic modelling as well as to geomorphologists and structural geologists. Whether or not it was present before the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia at 50 Ma has been the subject of perennial debate; it could have formed during the more or less continual accretion of terranes to southern Eurasia since the Jurassic Period. A novel approach to timing uplift of Tibet is obviously needed to resolve the controversies, and that may have been achieved (Hetzel, R. et al. 2011. Peneplain formation in southern Tibet predates the India-Asia collision and plateau uplift. Geology, v.39, p.983-986). North of Lhasa is an area of coincident small plateaus at around 5200-5400 m into which are cut valleys a few hundred metres. It has the hallmarks of a peneplain stripped to the base level of erosion, and developed on Cretaceous granites. The German-Chinese-South African team applied a range of geochronological techniques to date the emplacement of the granites and their cooling history. U/Pb dating shows the granites to have crystallised between 120 to 110 Ma; U-Th/He dating of zircons in them indicate their cooling from 180° to 60°C between 90 and 70 Ma; apatite U-Th/He and fission-track dating show that the granites experienced surface temperatures by around 55 Ma during a period of erosion at a rate of 200-400 m Ma-1. The clear inference is that an area >10 000 km2 became a peneplain by the end of the Palaeocene, to be unconformably overlain by Eocene continental redbeds.
By the Eocene the northern Lhasa Block had become a low-elevation plain from which a vast amount of sediment had been removed to be deposited elsewhere – Palaeocene and Eocene sediments are not common throughout the whole Tibetan Plateau. This is strong evidence that uplift of the Plateau only began after the India-Asia collision during the Eocene. Despite that and the erosion that would have taken place, much of the peneplain remains; given resistant bedrock peneplains can be very long-lived.